(As seen in the December 2016 issue of Destiny Man magazine)

It’s late May, just after five in the morning, outside it is pitch black and you are gearing up for a long day of watching one of the most South African events one can find. Its Comrades morning and with a hot cup of coffee, a tub of rusks and nice and cosy in a warm blanket, not even the chilly winter weather will keep you from the drama that is about to unfold on the screen! What a sight it is to see 17000 exited faces staring at the starting banner. Some are right underneath the banner while others have to squint to see it a few hundred meters ahead in the direction of city hall.

Okay so they are not just excited. Some are determined to improve on a previous result. Others are doing it for the first time and are chatting nervously with friends who have shared their six month journey to the starting line. Still others are back after injury disappointments, or starting a family, or after health setbacks. Some are there for ticking off a bucket list item.

A handful are over-confident, but the vast majority are pretty nervous! The Comrades challenge is something that stirs a person deep inside because of to the demands that it places on your physical body as much as your mental resolve. It is the fear that you will come face to face with yourself and get asked the question: “will you be able to handle the worst of the day?” The question doesn’t scare us as much as the possible answer. The fact that up to 20% of the field might not finish on the day does not help with confidence levels. Perhaps it adds to the challenge?  You bet it does!

The question arises about the 14000 runners that will actually finish the race – are they exceptional in that they are more capable, more gifted or physiologically advanced than the non-finishers? Perhaps they are using better supplements? Do they resort to dubious tactics in order to gain one of those covetous Comrades medals? Now that sounds a little farfetched! We are familiar with the cheats up front who use banned substances in order to give them the edge so that they can train harder, hang in for longer and perhaps not feel the pain as much as the other gold medallists. But in recent years, cheating to be in the prestigious circle of Comrades marathon finishers has also filtered through to the recreational or fun runners. Statisticians have come forward with proof that certain bronze runners managed to finish sections late in the race faster than some of the gold medallists! And some runners change dramatically in appearance when you compare photos at different sections of the race!

Thankfully the cheats are by far the minority and the spirit of Comrades is one that will challenge you to bring your best to race day in such a way that adversity, hardship and obstacles may be overcome and that human effort and tenacity may rise to the top.

Before the millennium Comrades the traditional cut-off time was eleven hours. In those days around 10% of the field didn’t make it to the finish line in time. With the introduction to new medals, more relaxed qualifying times and a generous twelve-hour cut-off, more runners are entering and a greater percentage of runners is not finishing in time. The route has remained the same, but technology has advanced. Footwear has “evolved” and training techniques have improved. Why then have we not seen an increase in the number of finishers? It brings us back to the question, just who can run, and finish, the Comrades marathon? The answer may surprise you: anyone willing to put in the work and preparation before race day, and then willing to mentally and physically persevere and fight for success on race day! Any abled bodied person prepared to do the hard miles, using the right equipment and looking after themselves on race day, could be assured of success. Of course with a race of this magnitude there are an array of possible eventualities in the build-up and on race day, but by enlarge, with sufficient preparation and foresight, that medal should be yours!

When Lorraine came to see me last year after a failed Comrades attempt, failure was a noose around her neck and ready to up again. When we planned her onslaught towards the Comrades 2016 event, the first step was to select an appropriate qualifying race. Typically, the Vaal marathon in Vereeniging provides an ideal opportunity to do a fast time and get placed in a good seeding block. And don’t underestimate the value of your seeding block! At the Comrades marathon some runners will cross the starting line while some of the elite runners are already approaching the 3km mark!
Lorraine was happy with the Vaal suggestion but wanted to discuss a backup plan. Just in case she “didn’t make it”! I assured her that we only need one shot at qualifying and that any additional long races will be purely for training purposes. Reluctantly she agreed and set off following her personalised training program

However, this first phase of the preparation was not to be without a few setbacks. Her enthusiasm was fantastic. So much so that she started running away with it and before long there was a red flag in the form of a foot niggle. Most regular runners will agree that few things are more frustrating than an injury. Especially when you are surrounded by other passionate runners building marathon bodies for the season that lies ahead.

Luckily sanity prevailed and after some concentrated rehabilitation Lorraine was back in training, armed with some rehab and strengthening exercises and getting back into the preparation process. As the marathon day approached, so did the increase in nerves and anticipation. True to form Lorraine surprised herself, and her coach, by ambling home in 4h18min! A full 42min inside the qualifying time!!

Filled with renewed confidence and belief Lorraine adhered to the mandatory recovery weeks after the marathon, and from there it was full steam ahead onto the Loskop 50 ultra marathon as part of the program. Some of the training included track training at her Fourways High training group, hill work, time trials, strength training, and of course some seriously long runs. For novices we recommend no more than three long runs. So in addition to the successful marathon qualifier Lorraine was faced with two additional long runs in the region of 50km each. Again she passed the tests with flying colours and as the days grew shorter her fitness and confidence grew stronger.

Eventually the only remaining hurdle was the big race itself. The preparation was done and the stage was set. Running shoes were well run in but not worn down. Supplements had been tried and tested. Pre-race meals were simple but safe. The race plan was scary but sensible.

What Lorraine experienced on race day was all she expected and more! What lay waiting for her beyond the borders of Pietermaritzburg was far more than just a stretch of road. It was opportunity. Opportunity to be part of history. Opportunity to stretch herself more than she thought possible. Opportunity also to confirm that she had what it takes, and that she could dig deep and make it count when it counts!

When she eventually reached the grassy fields at Kingspark in Durban there were still ninety minutes available to finish the race. When she crossed the finish line more than 9000 runners were still on the road heading down towards Durban! Most importantly though, when she crossed that line she was a different person to the one who woke up 14 hours earlier. Lorraine was now, and will always be, a Comrades marathon finisher.

Lorraine’s lessons learnt training for Comrades 2016:

  • Don’t compare yourself to others, this is your training, you need to focus on you and your capabilities and work on that;
  • At races, don’t get caught up by the crowds and what everyone else around you is doing, remember your training…this is your race…your pace;
  • Going out too fast too soon leads to injuries.  The Physio is your friend, go immediately if the injury needs his/her attention and listen to his/her advice;
  • Listen to and trust your Coach, he actually does know what he is talking about and adhere to the programme.  It’s tempting to want to do more or go faster…DON’T!;
  • Weight actually does play an important role overall, find your median.  Being either over or under weight can lead to ill health equalling injuries.
  • Build strength, do not bulk up.  Light weights and body exercises are sufficient;
  • Learn to pace yourself, you’re running an ultra, you going to need to be on your feet for a great part of the day, be comfortable, fight the urge to surge.  Be aware of your body and running pace Know when you’re going too fast or when you’ve slowed down and adjust.  There’s no shame in walking, walking will actually get you to the finish, practice a run/walk strategy at your races for at least 2 months before;
  • Always remind yourself why you signed up and let that help carry you through the training sessions and races;
  • Be aware of your body functions, i.e. know what works for you in terms of food and training/racing.  Do you need to eat/drink before training/racing?  What is it that your gut can tolerate for these session? You may find that you can train and race some distances on an empty stomach and you don’t necessarily need gels and sugary drinks but water is sufficient;
  • Make sure you have the right shoe.  Unfortunately, it is possible that it will not be the one first recommended by a running specialist as our bodies are different, so there may be trial and error on this part but once you find it, buy at least 2 pairs;
  • Glean information or lean on your fellow track mates/buddies and then make up your own mind or run it by your Coach if it is something that could have an impact on your training;
  • You do not have to LOVE the programme but EMBRACE it and it will make sticking to it a lot easier;
  • Celebrate the results!

 Marcél (2h39 marathon runner and Comrades finisher) is a running coach and can be reached at marcel@fitnessfromafrica.co.za